“Exactly in some ways, different in others.”
So describes the similarities to Earth of planet 892-IV (also known as Maga Roma). The Enterprise has found a 20th Century Roman Empire and Hodkin’s Law of Parallel Planetary Development strikes again. “Bread and Circuses” has it all: a high concept plot, richly drawn characters, humor, suspense, action, a blonde bombshell with a name ending in the requisite letter “a,” and great acting. It is also notable for plumbing the depths of the Spock-McCoy relationship and dealing directly with religion, which makes it unique among TOS episodes. Now it is new and improved and remastered…with double the moon goodness. The episode also has enough plot holes to swallow a dozen starships, but more on that later.
Logic v. Emotion
The script by Roddenberry and Coon (Star Trek’s “genes,” literally and figuratively) sets in stark relief the struggle between logic and emotion as exemplified by Spock and McCoy. The interaction is elevated beyond “bickering” into an exploration of deeply held differences on issues that matter—the nature of the Empire, the treatment of the slaves, and being true to ones self.
There are few more moving scenes in all of Trek than between Spock and McCoy in the jail cell. McCoy zeroes in on Spock’s insecurity, verbally fires a searing insight into his character, and then watches the emotion explode in Spock’s eyes. Accusing Spock of being more afraid of living than of dying for fear that emotions may overwhelm him leads to a stunning admission by Spock—he does have genuine feeling, especially for the well-being of his captain and his friend. For all the good-natured teasing between these two earlier in the episode, McCoy finally wins an argument and gets Spock to admit his emotions, but at what cost to Spock? Nimoy and Kelley play the scene beautifully, with Nimoy using his eyes alone to convey emotion through a dead facial expression.
Spock…just let it all out
“Bread and Circuses” is replete with well-rounded and believable characters with clearly defined motivations. Certainly all of the regulars are true to themselves without a false note to be found. Kirk is rakish and clever, Spock is conflicted between emotion and logic, and McCoy is insightful, irascible, and funny. Mr. Scott comes off well, and even Uhura gets to deliver the big reveal at the end. The guest stars are superb and the humor is actually funny—the sarcasm of Claudius Marcus, the ribbing between Spock and McCoy, the doctor’s distress in the arena, and the poking of fun at the TV industry.
In many ways, the episode is about the choices people make—the choice Merik made to sacrifice his crew and then redeem himself, the choice Claudius Marcus makes to protect and perpetuate the status quo, the choice Kirk makes to uphold the Prime Directive, the choice Spock makes to reveal his inner self, and even the choice Flavius Maximus made to leave the games and follow the “sun.”
It’s all about the ratings
Give Me That Old Time Religion
B&C also has the distinction of being the original series episode most preoccupied with religion. Given Roddenberry’s professed secular humanism, it gets surprisingly sympathetic treatment. Roddenberry once wrote: “I condemn false prophets, I condemn the effort to take away the power of rational decision, to drain people of their free will—and a hell of a lot of money in the bargain. Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.” Well! Not very IDIC of him, is it?
One could argue that in the episodes where Kirk liberates populations from the yoke of computer control—and there are many!—the computer is a metaphor for a god or religion. In Trekdom, science always triumphs over religion, and is often ridiculed in a way reminiscent of Roddenberry’s above quote. But in B&C, it’s portrayed in a positive light, with Kirk endorsing the belief that all men are brothers and becoming excited over the prospect of another Christ.
There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing of the religious theme at the beginning of Act One, when McCoy wishes that just once he could beam down to a planet and say “Behold! I am the archangel Gabriel.” I’ve also always wondered why the slaves in hiding still wore their slave clothes with the chained links on them. I thought the links represented their enslavement, but now I think they represented the holy trinity.
Suon Worshipers Septimus and Flavius
When the Moons Hit Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie
The episode also gets high marks for production values. Ralph Senensky’s direction is sure, and at times, inventive. Location shooting adds immeasurably to the scope of the episode, and I particularly like the long establishing shot of the crew beaming down, as well as the from-below shot of Kirk and company journeying to the city with the sun overhead. Syndicators cut out stock footage at the beginning of Act 2 showing a series of Roman-like buildings (one of which was clearly the dome at MIT!).
CBS-D didn’t have much to do for this show. The two moons are nicely done, if not overused—at the beam down, in orbit, as they leave orbit, etc. Here a moon, there a moon, everywhere a moon-moon. The bullet holes in the cell wall are a nice, apparently random touch. The explosive charges in the trees that would indicate machine gun fire when Flavius and the landing party are ambushed in the woods are still clearly visible.
Hey look ma…two moons…did we mention there were two moons
Quibbles and Bits
Having said that, this episode stretches credulity further than Shatner’s third season girdle. If the crew is so concerned about protecting the Prime Directive and not contaminating the culture, why do they beam down in uniform brandishing Type I phasers, make liberal use of their communicators, and leave Spock’s ears exposed? Why is McCoy seen running his Feinberger over an escaped slave in the cave?
Similarly, why is Claudius Marcus so concerned about the Federation upsetting the status quo of his planet when he knows damn well the Prime Directive prevents interference? He even uses the knowledge against Kirk when the captain bluffs to beam down a hundred men with phasers.
And come to think of it, why is everybody speaking English instead of Latin, the language of ancient Rome? Stick that in your Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planetary Development and smoke it!
“I call them ears”
Bread and Circuses
The term “bread and circuses” refers to the policy of Roman emperors to provide grain to the unemployed masses and entertainment in the Coliseum. It’s also currently used by restaurant critics to rate the food and atmosphere of eating establishments. So in that vein, I give the substance of the episode an 8, and the entertainment value a 9.
Kevin Ganster is a writer and editor for a major trade association in Washington, D.C. He has been an avid Trek fan since 1981.